After December 18, the Colbert Nation will have to go on without its leader. The Colbert Report will air its final show that day, drawing the curtain down on one of the great political satires-cum-secret variety shows ever. You may be asking, "How will we remember this program and its brilliant faux-conservative host Stephen Colbert?" Well, Greg, by counting down the show's 30 greatest recurring segments. From big gay roundups to the difference makers around us, these deadpan, fake-news flashes of comedic genius will endure long after Stephen starts playing himself on his CBS show in 2015.
An occasional segment where Colbert investigates unexplained phenomenon of the distant past, "Mysteries of the Ancient Unknown" peaked with his pseudo-hard-hitting 2010 report that looked into the strange disappearance of King Tut's penis. Despite some spectacularly stereotypical Egyptian music that was used to score the segment, the host never really came close to cracking the case of the pharaoh's pilfered phallus. But it did inspire this great throwaway line: "Speaking of ancient shriveled kings, Larry King is retiring!"
Long before he wrote three New York Times bestsellers, the show's namesake fantasized of having his 1,800-page sci-fi tome published. Instead, he animated it in a series of mini-adventures that starred the sexually potent, super-confident interstellar hero Tek Jansen (voiced, naturally, by Colbert) who had a predilection for shouting "Solar plexus!" or "Astro glide!" when something shocking happened. An adorable sendup of dorky fan-fiction, "Alpha Squad 7" spotlighted the star's talent as a voice actor, which he also displayed on shows like The Venture Bros.
The Right's smug disdain for science — mixed with Colbert's geeky love of science fiction — paved the way for the enraged host's aggrieved assaults on Stephen Hawking, complaining that, if the acclaimed astrophysicist could travel back in time, he'd hang out with Marilyn Monroe rather than kill Hitler. "Such an A-Hole" only aired a few times, but it did introduce the hilarious mascot for the future Cleveland Humans, who was basically a person wearing a gigantic fake Colbert head firing a T-shirt cannon into the audience.
No true conservative wanted the Cold War to end: Once the Soviet Union went down, who would we rattle our sword at? In that spirit, The Colbert Report launched this rundown of every Communist threat still out there, including Rocky IV's Ivan Drago and former NBA star Yao Ming. Ironically, "Cold War Update" became an accidental record of just how bad Obama's relationship with Russia got. As the President's first term began, he naively promised new progress with America's former enemy. "I want the old progress," Colbert whined in rebuttal, "where they go bankrupt and we watch new episodes of Cheers."
Yes, the concept is a little dated now, but "The DaColbert Code" gave the host the opportunity to nerd out on pop-culture detritus. Inspired by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the segment found Stephen predicting future events by following a giddily dopey "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"-like association between different celebrities and events. Turns out that the comedian is a pretty good Oscar prognosticator — and although it just about killed him, he correctly called Obama's 2008 presidential election.
In its first few years, the show's writers seemed to relish any opportunity to explore whatever goofy idea came their way. They even managed to turn painful accidents into comedic possibilities. In the summer of 2007, Colbert broke his left wrist before a taping of the show, requiring a cast and a healthy dose of Vicodin. Out of it came "Wrist Watch," a somber attempt to bring awareness to this serious health issue — and another chance to scold Hollywood's flaunting of wrist violence. [Cue Luke getting his hand cut off in The Empire Strikes Back.]
A dig at Mad Money, "Bears & Balls" reduced the entirety of TV's can't-miss investment-advice programs to a cheap-looking red button that Stephen would hit for pointers on where to put his money. Whereas Jon Stewart dealt with the 2008 financial meltdown by lacerating Jim Cramer to his face, The Colbert Report went slyer, showing the ludicrousness of so-called experts while noting the bankruptcies of failed companies like Circuit City, Linens N Things, and Circuit N Linens, "which makes bedding for your DVD player."
An early sign that Colbert was the spiritual descendant of David Letterman, this silly, totally non sequitur bit featured Law & Order's ramrod serious Sam Waterston making ridiculous straight-faced statements in that soothing, confident voice of his. ("It's okay, I've had a vasectomy. I swear.") The whole thing was dreamed up as a response to the actor's Law & Order costar Fred Thompson's ill-advised 2008 presidential campaign. "I think [Colbert's] the funniest man on the planet," Waterston said in 2012, "and also the bravest."
Who would be intelligent enough to square off with Colbert in a debate? Only one man, of course: Stephen Colbert. In each installment of "Formidable Opponent," the host literally took on both sides of an issue, like Pakistan or offshore drilling, with the help of a green screen. It's a testament to the Report's pleasure in being technically innovative — but not at the expense of laughs — that the segement was both how-did-they-do-that? fun and insightful. And it gave Colbert a chance to show off his performance chops, alternating seamlessly between the two positions in the debate as the cameras cut from one side to the other.
In 2012 to promote his ostensible children's book I Am a Pole (And So Can You!), Colbert launched this brief series where he interviewed renowned kids' authors Maurice Sendak and Julie Andrews to get their advice. Sendak, who died just a few months after the segment aired, was particularly wonderful, revealing a lot about his creative process and being eminently quotable. (Asked by Colbert for guidance on what's required to be a good children's author, Sendak warmly replied, "You've started already by being an idiot. That is the very first demand.")
It's tricky to play a vain egomaniac: How do you separate yourself from your character's unstoppable self-regard? Stephen licked the problem with these interconnected segments, which celebrated the institutions smart enough to pay homage to him while scorning those who took umbrage with the character. One of the Report's best running jokes was that everything in the show's universe operated as if there was no such person as Stephen, just "Colbert." In the process, Stephen became incredibly famous, but we always thought it was "Colbert" who wanted the spotlight.
It's always fun when the Colbert character's ineptitude was unleashed upon the commonwealth, such as during the series of remote segments in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics when Stephen auditioned for different U.S. teams. "Fallback Position" gave him his best platform for this talent: Colbert researched different jobs he might want to pursue if Comedy Central fired him. He'd make an incredibly terrible NFL quarterback, but his 2010 investigation into being a migrant worker became part of the real Colbert's campaign to raise awareness for immigration reform that led to his testimony on Capitol Hill for the cause.
One of the Colbert Nation's dirtiest secrets is that, while they see through this conservative blowhard, its members are not immune to America's capitalist and culinary excesses. How else to explain the popularity of "Thought for Food," where Colbert runs down disgusting food innovations, like KFC's Go Cup, Doritos Tacos and "second breakfast"? A very funny salute to gluttony and additives, the segment constantly reminded us how evil the country's corporate food providers were — even if, OK, Doritos Tacos do sound kind of amazing.
Colbert's TV persona was created to satirize right-wing pundits and loudmouths, so the Fox News outrage over the so-called "War on Christmas" played perfectly into the Report's mock indignation. But perhaps no gag in "The Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude" was ever as funny as the opening graphic, in which the Red Baron (for some reason) shoots down Santa's sleigh, St. Nick saved from plummeting to his death by the inexplicable appearance of Jesus in another plane. (Also great: the sister segment "Easter Under Attack," where an animated Jesus is resurrected and starts exchanging gunfire.)
Each time it aired, "Big Gay Roundup" was guaranteed hilarity because of its opening titles, which featured longtime buddy Steve Carell in cowboy hat, suit, and holster shooting fake pistols while making "pew pew" noises. Colbert utilized the segment to bemoan the latest gay-ification of good ol' fashioned American values. But, sneakily, the show's chronicling of the country's rising social acceptance of same-sex marriage was reflected in the character's reluctant admittance that, fine, gay weddings are pretty fabulous.
It's a bit where the entire concept is right there in the title: "The Craziest F#?king Thing I've Ever Heard" tracked down the oddest, vilest news items from around the world and then stared in slack-jawed astonishment. Plants that grow tomatoes and potatoes (or "TomTatoes")! Parasites that eat their victims' tongue and then become a new tongue! Plenty of Colbert fans probably never knew the segment was a spoof of Bill O'Reilly's "The Most Ridiculous Item of the Day." But then again, Papa Bear's show never featured a look at the reanimated severed ear of Vincent Van Gogh.
Few in the show's audience enjoyed the life of the One Percent — which, the comedian always liked to point out, included him. But we could pretend for a few minutes with this segment that spotlighted the latest ridiculous luxury being offered to the filthy-filthy rich. "Colbert Platinum" was the Report's very funny way of skewering economic inequality by making the character a figure of unfeeling, unearned privilege. But here's the thing: He's such a charming asshole we never seemed to mind how much better off he was than we were.
Spoofing tawdry real-life crime shows such as Dateline, "Nailed 'Em" addressed the most egregious cases of over-the-top punishment for incredibly minor offenses, like the Pennsylvania boy who had to give up his beloved library card because he technically didn't live in the library's district. Not that the host noticed the unfairness, narrating these video segments with a cold, vengeful, judgmental glee — and plenty of "Nailed" graphics splayed over the subjects' faces. The hook was obvious (blasé on-camera subjects are juxtaposed with melodramatic music and editing) but The Colbert Report nailed it.
Akin to Nixon's enemies list, Colbert's "On Notice" board was where people and things that angered the host were immortalized for eternal contempt. Jane Fonda, limey squirrel eaters, Barbra Streisand, the Toronto Raptors, OK Go, business casual … they all know what they've done. And in a sign of the Report's importance to the young voters he was trying to reach, Barack Obama put in an appearance during the 2008 campaign to request that "distractions" be added to the board.
The Colbert Report proved that any holiday, no matter how holy, could be an excuse for the host to focus on his own bottomless self-importance. "Atone Phone" would show up every year around Rosh Hashanah — or, as the pseudo-pundit would say it, "Rosh Hashashashashanah" — so that Jewish celebrities who had wronged him could call and apologize. (Folks like Jeff Tweedy and Gilbert Gottfried duly obliged.) Now that the show is ending, hopefully 1-888-MOSS-LEW won't have to worry about getting 1-888-OOPS-JEW's messages anymore.
Reminiscent of "Nailed 'Em" in construction and tone, "Difference Makers" was a series of deadpan video segments where the producers would interview everyday individuals who were under the mistaken impression that they were making principled stands. Draping his subjects in faux glory, Colbert let his clueless on-camera participants — whether it be a self-righteous task force harassing meter maids or Canadian authorities cracking down on local bong-like mascots — provide the unintentional laughs. Weirdly, though, the segment never seemed cruel: As always, Stephen's inherent kindness kept the bits from becoming mean.
Declaring himself "America's most famous Catholic," Colbert the character has been a subversive way for Colbert the person to demonstrate his faith with more humanity and less dogma than is displayed by the Religious Right. (It's a toss-up between Stephen and Pope Francis for Best Catholic Rebrander of the 21st Century.) "Yahweh or No Way" was one-stop shopping for recent religious news, with the star divining God's stance on everything from Christian Mingle to the new English translation of Catholic mass introduced in 2011. No program has made deep-cut Bible passages so damn funny.
The Report has a few different video segments where the host narrates his voiceover in comically serious tones over a dim-witted pretaped bit. But "People Who Are Destroying America" was the best, specifically because of a moving, hilarious August 2013 bit about Johnny Cummings, an openly gay mayor in a backwoods Kentucky small town. Colbert assumes the townsfolk will be (like him) incensed; instead, the bit discovers a beautifully open-minded community that's wholly welcoming of Cummings and his sexuality. "I always watch The Colbert Report," Cummings later told Mother Jones about agreeing to the segment. "To get your point across, sometimes you just gotta laugh."
Because he represents Average Joe American, Colbert loves football and finds baseball absolutely terrible. (Proving they're good sports, the folks at MLB let him take over their Twitter account for a day in 2011 to help make it less boring.) "The Sport Report" mocks ESPN's fiery graphics while the comedian shows off his lack of knowledge for every sport he covers. Because the real-life Colbert is such a fantasy/sci-fi nerd, "The Sport Report" is probably pretty far out of his personal expertise, but his character was able to tap into the country's kick-ass, macho-bro bloodlust.
Sometimes, boorish behavior is so outlandish and unapologetic that you have to tip your cap. Hence, "Alpha Dog of the Week," which paid tribute to the world's biggest hypocrites and un-self-aware fools, like Scott DesJarlais, a pro-life, family-values Republican congressman who, in 2012, urged his mistress to have an abortion — a decision Colbert defended with circling-the-wagons conviction. "He is still adamantly against abortion," the host explained, "except when it endangers the political life of the father."
The segment with the greatest amount of enjoyable regular features, "Cheating Death" was a marvel of comedic anticipation. Each installment began with one of two variations of a parody of The Seventh Seal's chess-playing-with-the-Grim-Reaper sequence. Then Colbert would carefully explain that, as a doctor of fine arts, he couldn't cure your illness but, rather, entertain you in some oddly specific way. The endless riffs on the general terribleness of Prescott Pharmaceuticals, the inspired new medicines based on real-life scientific breakthroughs, the horrendous side effects: Please tell us "Cheating Death" will be part of Stephen's CBS show. Otherwise, we'll see you in health!
A core principle of Fox News is scaring the shit out of its audience with as much alarmist news as possible. The Report's response was the "ThreatDown," a countdown of mostly benign things that Colbert insisted posed grave threats to the Republic. Terrorist furniture, iPhones, jazz robots … all of them earned the man's ire. But above all, bears terrified the fictional host, who made them a regular staple of the segment. There was a happy ending, though: Colbert made peace with the killing machines in the final month of the show, even making out with a (fake) bear on camera.
When Colbert was on The Daily Show, he made for a fantastic correspondent, his believable idiocy sparking good TV from his helpless, straitlaced interview subjects. He channeled that talent into "Better Know a District," his series of chats with members of the House of Representatives. Congressmen and women knew they were the embarrassed, undignified butts of Colbert's lame-brained character — and Nancy Pelosi even encouraged Democrats not to participate — but they kept going on, anyway. As a Republican strategist told The New York Times in 2006, "The younger staffs of these folks are convincing their bosses that if you really want to be president of the United States some day, you've got to get in with the crowd on Comedy Central."
"If you read the Bible, then you know that our Lord said, 'Judge not, lest thee be judged.' I say, 'Speak English, Jesus.' This is 'Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger.'" One of the Report's longest-running bits, this segment gave Colbert a chance to sound off on most everything in the news, scolding and praising with equal aplomb. There wasn't anything especially clever about the premise: It was just the thrill of dumb ol' Colbert having the platform to mouth off yet again. A consistently scathing takedown of cable news's unquenchable thirst for Viewpoints and Hot Takes, "Tip/Wag" is the comedian's "Like a Rolling Stone," the big popular favorite that everybody loves because it's just plain terrific.
How many talk shows lay out their thesis statement in the first episode? With the debut of "The Word," Colbert introduced us to the concept of "Truthiness" — the adherence to what feels true as opposed to what is true. It both perfectly articulated the Fox News ethos while providing the guiding principle for the Report's next nine years. A riff on Fake Colbert's inspiration Bill O'Reilly and his "Talking Points" feature, the segment let the host go off on a pointed political essay while his own graphics board added an ironic side commentary to every dumb thing the nincompoop pundit was saying. The segment encapsulated all that was astounding about The Colbert Report: It was politically astute but not didactic, thought-provoking but light on its feet, hilarious but also deeply felt. And that's the word.